Monsters & Empathy: ‘Arrival,’ Difference and Elections

Alexis_RomeroMy name is Alexis Romero Walker. I am a current Doctoral student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in the school of Media and Journalism. Through my studies I explore representations of minorities through the medium of film. Films advocate for something through their overall themes and messages. Superhero movies advocate for helping those in need, but ask at what cost. Romantic comedies advocate that everlasting love is all you need in life. And often, monster movies advocate for elimination of the monsters that we fear.
 
 
However, after watching the film Arrival I learned that monsters are a powerful way to advocate for empathy. Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a science fiction film that transcends much of the genre, discussing a fear that many have—the taking over of the world by aliens. However, the film symbolically provides a commentary for an even larger fear that most American’s have today—the taking over of society by the racial minority. Based off Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life”, Arrival uses specific language, imagery, and labeling to showcase the way we treat racial minorities in American culture, which merges minorities into a category of the “other” thus making them voiceless and a threat to the social order.
 
 
The film begins by focusing on Louise, a linguistics professor, who acts as the protagonist. The world is in disarray because alien ships are landing in various countries and nobody can figure out what to do about it. Louise, being a top linguist, is then called in by the military to find a way to communicate with these aliens. This is where the metaphor begins showing aliens as representations of the “other.” Military protocol is the first step to dealing with the situation of the unwanted coming into our land. Newscasters announce that hundreds of troops are being sent to where the alien ship has landed in case the aliens pose a threat. People are frantically getting food, water, and weapons to hide in their homes before even understanding the situation. Schools are shutting down and stores are being closed because there is already a perceived threat.
 
 
The film continues through having Louise study the aliens so she can learn their communication system. As she explores language, she quickly begins to see similarities between her and the aliens. The aliens have feelings and care for one another. The only difference between the aliens and the humans is that the aliens speak another language and look different.  At the conclusion of the film, the characters realize that the aliens only landed on Earth to give necessary information to the humans about something that might save the planet. So, in the end, the aliens were not a threat at all, but were helpers, therefore, advocating that often those that look and sound different than us are not much different at all. And they are more likely trying to help us rather than hurt us.
 
 
Being a Mexican-American, with family that immigrated to the United States from Mexico, I have certainly experienced times where people saw my family as a threat to society. Just recently the president called for a national security crisis, announcing that there was a caravan of illegal immigrants coming to ruin our country. We live in a time where people are dehumanized—humans are seen as monsters because they speak a different language or their skin is a different color. The “othering” of people within mainstream media is nothing new. News media has historically represented racial minorities as illegals, criminals, and monsters. And fictional media has commonly depicted racial minorities as drug dealers, murderers, and sex offenders. Media has represented the racial minority as someone or something we should be afraid of.
 
 
However, films such as Arrival are powerful as they show that monsters are not really that scary, and really, monsters are only monsters because we perceive them to be so. The understanding and empathy represented symbolically through the monsters in Arrival then becomes a powerful message in society today and promotes the idea of reaching out to those that are different than us to understand them rather fear them.
 
 
Media messages are powerful–as media consumers we must be prepared to understand those messages, and as media practitioners we have a responsibility to create truthful and positive messages. And this is especially important given the recent midterm elections and the future presidential election in 2020, in which decisions have and will be made about how racial minorities are treated in our country. Will they be seen as enemies, as monsters themselves? Will they be put in cages? Denied clean water? Removed from their homes? Targeted for police brutality? Or will we advocate for better media representations, better legal protections, and practice understanding and empathy ourselves?

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